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Recap: 'The Newsroom' Break Bin Laden's Death In Irritating, Manipulative Low For The Series

Television
by Oliver Lyttelton
August 6, 2012 11:00 AM
25 Comments
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Season 1, Episode 7: "5/1"

Later on today, the first trailer for "Zero Dark Thirty" will emerge. As you know, it's the film by "The Hurt Locker" helmer Kathryn Bigelow that focuses on the hunt for, and successful assassination of, Osama Bin Laden, starring Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Edgar Ramirez and Mark Duplass, among many others. It's presumably nothing but a coincidence that last night saw Aaron Sorkin tackle the same subject on "The Newsroom," with Will McAvoy and the rest of the "News Night" team receiving early reports that Navy SEALs had gone into Pakistan and taken out the Al Qaeda leader, and battling to find confirmation. But one can only hope that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have a somewhat stronger handle on their own material than this uneven, misjudged and generally botched "The Newsroom" episode.

We start in the middle of a party that Will is reluctantly throwing at his apartment to honor the one-year anniversary of the revamped "News Night" (and it's notable that it really does not feel like that much time has passed, with the characters remaining in stasis). It's interrupted by a phone call to bossman Charlie (Sam Waterston), from a source who tries to call himself Deep Throat, but ends up going by the name "Late To Dinner" (sigh...), saying that the president will make a major announcement within the next 90 minutes, relating to national security.

And as the party continues, hints start to come out. Neil reads his girlfriend's Twitter feed to her (because that's totally a thing that people do in real life...), revealing that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is hinting at great news to come. Charlie, like all 70-year-old news producers, knows that The Rock has a cousin who is a Navy SEAL, and surmises that the U.S. may have finally gotten Osama Bin Laden, When news of a Presidential announcement on National Security comes in, the team are put into action.

Across the episode, it becomes increasingly clear that it's Bin Laden, rather than anything else, but Charlie and the team are reluctant to report the news without firm confirmation, to the extent that Mac yanks a rogue reporter in D.C. off the air. Meanwhile, Don, Elliot and Sloan are stuck on the runway at LaGuardia, unable to contribute to the story, a frustrated Don steadily alienating a cabin crew member.

Eventually Will (who is, it emerges, high as a kite on his "medicinal" marijuana, but inexplicably sobers up in time to go on air) finds an email from Joe Biden saying they can report the news (we promise we're not making this up) and they go live just before Obama's announcement, while Don gets to redeem himself by telling the pilots of his plane -- United Airlines, as it turns out -- that Bin Laden's been killed. Cue soaring score and misty eyes. Oh, and there was the usual love-quadrangle bullshit scattered throughout, with Maggie telling Jim to break up with Lisa after being told that she loves him, but Jim actually deciding to ask her out properly, because... honestly, we have no clue.

There was some good in this episode, it should be said. Sorkin appeared last week at the TCA to defend the show, and said, of the charges of sexism (which we certainly agree with, as we've reported in previous weeks) that the female characters in the show are "every bit the equals of the men. I think they are not just talked about as being good at their job, they are plainly good at their job.” There hasn't been much actual evidence of this in the show to date, but it was refreshing to see Mac in genuine news producer mode, and Will being the one who fucks up (sort of...), with Emily Mortimer getting probably her least embarassing material of the show to date. Sloan too was mostly on good form, bar the story of setting the Treasury Secretary on fire (which was partially redeemed by her comeback: that she did it "just to show the other cabinet secretaries that I could"). Maggie was pretty much redundant, but that's at least a step up from incompetent, we suppose.

It's unfortunate that there was also an awful lot of bad stuff here too. From Will and Jim duetting on acoustic guitars for no goddamn reason to the neat-as-anything Joe Biden email, the show seems to have reverted to its odd, alternate fantasy world, something made all the worse by its ties to real life events. Even the news-gathering stuff -- which often has been the show's most thrilling momentsm -- felt flat, leading to the dullest episode to date.

And the treatment of the Bin Laden story felt entirely misjudged, with Sorkin at his schmaltziest. Natalie Morales' character, Neil's girlfriend (who's essentially been briefly glimpsed in the background until now), turns out to have lost her father in the World Trade Center, because.. we guess Sorkin wanted someone to have had a personal connection to the attacks? The idea -- that Bin Laden's death hasn't been too cathartic -- wasn't a bad one, but it came out of nowhere, from a character we barely know, and was woefully underdeveloped as it was. Even worse was Don's final moment on the plane, telling the pilots with a lump in his throat about Bin Laden's death; Thomas Sadoski did his best, but it was a moment of such unearned sentimentality that it made us want to put our foot through the TV (the crewman's FDNY hat just put the cherry on the top of how manipulative and crass the show felt this week).   

After two good-to-decent episodes, it was inevitable that "The Newsroom" would lose its footing again at some point, but we weren't expecting it to do it so severely, and so soon. Sorkin has always been on less sure footing when 9/11 comes into the picture (witness the Very Special "West Wing" episode hastily shot in the aftermath, or the "standing in the middle of Afghanistan!" moment in "Studio 60"), but we'd have imagined that the biggest news story of the last couple of the years would have provided a far more satisfying episode than this one. Fingers crossed the show finds its feet again next week. [D]

Bits & Pieces

- So "Late To Dinner" (again, ugh) turns out to be an NSA employee tipping Charlie not just about Bin Laden, but about a brewing phone hacking scandal that may involve their parent company's tabloid rag "TMI," which we expect will pay off in the next episode. Does that make Hope Davis the show's Rebekah Brooks surrogate?

- Also, the source's voice sounded very familiar. We thought it might be Keith David -- any better guesses out there?

- Who throws a party full of booze and weed on a Sunday night? Does "News Night" not air Mondays or something?

- Haha, Obama and Osama sound alike! What a fresh and original observation!

- If you recognize Neil's girlfriend Natalie Morales, she had a similar coolest-girlfriend-ever-role on "Parks & Recreation," as well as starring in the underrated show "The Middleman."

- While the love triangle(s) material has been almost uniformly terrible across the show, we have been enjoying Kelen Coleman ("The Office") as Lisa. She's far too good for Jim, though, and we hope she comes to her senses, leaving him and Maggie to run off together, and hopefully kill each other in some kind of gruesome suicide pact.

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25 Comments

  • theOne | August 13, 2012 1:08 AMReply

    you just sound like a bitter douche who longs to be an actual journalist but all you've surmounted to is a hack blog writer complaining about a cable television show.

  • Ren | September 8, 2012 4:44 PM

    I just saw this episode on HBO On Demand. I don't have much free time where I get to watch TV, but when I do, I like to sit down and catch up. Matt, I would personally echo the exact statements I'm about to make to this writers face. If given 5 minutes with them, in any venue and at any time, I'd gladly state all of this for the record. But first to your comment. They weren't trying to get the audience to feel bad for Anthony Weiner, they meant exactly what they said, that there are better things to pay attention to then sexts and pop culture. I really don't care what Congress does when their not on The Hill, I care about how they vote. So do yourself a favor, stop claiming you know things about someone you've never met and don't know the first thing about. You don't know what any person would or would not do given the right circumstances. If anything you're the one who's just trying to act big behind a computer. My response to this article will be on my own blog recordofnine.blogspot.com here in a little bit.

  • Matt | August 13, 2012 4:21 AM

    You are a pathetic person who attacks people while hiding behind a computer. I know you would never say this face to face. Anyways, this show sucks and is a liberal smoosh session where they never say anything bad about one democrat. They even try to get the audience to feel bad for Anthony Wiener. This show is a joke.

  • Broadway | August 8, 2012 6:12 PMReply

    I don't know why every review I've seen of Sunday's show hates on the singing/guitar playing scene with Will and Jim. Do they not know that the actor who plays Jim is a Tony-winning Broadway star who is a great singer and actually plays the guitar? It seemed totally natural to me that he would sing on the show. What I'm not sure about is why they had to ruin the moment by having Jeff Daniels sing too, could have done without that.

  • alphabet | August 7, 2012 7:45 PMReply

    I'm still on board. Stupidly Earnest is a voice long-missing from public discourse, am game to let this show fly its colors.

    Mild concern that they've blasted through a year of news already, quickly approaching realtime headlines..

    And specific to this review - noting that Will "inexplicably sobers up in time to go on air" - as anyone who's had to perform professionally while seriously inebriated knows, crisis can lead one to go on auto-pilot or just rise to the occasion and perform brilliantly regardless (ie. Doc Ellis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dock_Ellis) - I would have found it much more out of character if Will had botched the broadcast.

  • Belle | August 7, 2012 3:40 PMReply

    It also injected quite a bit of emotionalism and heroism over the "event" of killing
    Osama Bin Laden. "Clapping moment"? C'mon. Airplane moment. Wow. I thought I was going to puke forcefully enough to reach my TV with that. Didactically and sanctimoniously reminding us to remember Obama's place in history, yes that's right, hence the nice speech at the end. Yuck. Ps. American's aren't that emotionally attached because that's not an authentic response right now. Let art be just that. We come to the TV to escape reality not have it perverted.

  • Blink | August 7, 2012 12:05 PMReply

    Late for Dinner sounded like Jeffrey Wright to me.

  • Phil | August 7, 2012 8:57 AMReply

    Too bad The Rock didn't send out that tweet until 10:24 EST. Gotta live creative license.

  • lol | August 6, 2012 4:50 PMReply

    I agree that The Newsroom hasn't been as great as any of us could have hoped for, but you pick this episode to rail on? Are you kidding? I'd love to know what your idea of a party is, if not having fun which is what they were doing. Sorry they decided to try and be funny. Hopefully they'll go back to being serious all the time. Wait, then you'll blame them for being boring.
    The author should consider a new gig.

  • Markus | August 6, 2012 3:40 PMReply

    C'mon, you guys don't really want this show to find it's footing next week, do you? It would appear that you love spilling words against it's every step to actually give a shit as to whether the show was good or not. Even your favorable episode reviews are mostly negative. I don't really give a damn one way or the other, but I just don't see the point in taking weekly shots at a show that would appear to be better off without getting the press at all.

  • Dakine | August 6, 2012 11:23 PM

    The show is not worthy of HBO or the talented actors in it. Many people are giving this show chance after chance (including myself) and it's getting worse and worse. The show is so pretentious and unrealistic that there is no chance for it gain any footing in season 1. MAYBE if there is a season 2. Although, if there is, I can't imagine Sorkin turning this shit into anything bearable to watch.

  • Kamal | August 6, 2012 9:25 PM

    If you don't want to see negative reviews/recaps of the show, then don't read them. Just because the author is critical of the show, doesn't make the recaps/reviews invalid. What would be the point of only positive reviews?

  • Neil | August 6, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    I've really enjoyed this series so far. Aside from episode 2 (with the cringe worthy 'reply all' email story line) the rest has been excellent. This episode, however, was the worst since the second with equally odd moments. There was absolutely no need for the over-the-top lip dubbed singing scene and Mac's explanation of trying to report the story early of roughly "if Americans know he's dead one minute earlier that will be the most important moment in my career" nonsense made me punch a pillow.

    I adore Sorkin, including Studio 60, which I can't understand how so many US critics panned. He's among the best writers in America today and Newsroom is a great show despite some extremely awkward moments. Comment threads discussing his work are so often filled with vitriol and so I feel obliged to redress the balance.

  • Nolan | August 6, 2012 1:21 PMReply

    When the girlfriend seemed upset after the uproar about Osama's death, I was hoping the show was going to deal with the idea of us as a country celebrating like we won the world cup or something because a man had been shot and killed. I mean, that's the sort of the feeling I had. When I heard the news I was shocked...very shocked, actually, but it's not like I went dancing in the street. It seemed so strange and morbid and futile. The show could have had a nice dialogue about catharsis, but instead they went for unearned sentimentality. And I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought "wait, people don't actually do this?" during the whole READ ME MY TWITTER FEED thing.

  • Malcolm | August 6, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    For some time now I have believed that this TV show wasn't designed to be a long-term series, but simply an election year advertisment, designed to promote Democrat ideals and hold up the base. (similar to the short-lived anti-Bush series on Comedy Central)
    .
    We have the straw-man republican (who always sees the errors of their ways and become democrats), the perfect timing of hindsight (this is what we WOULD have done if we were as smart as we think we are), and of course the wishful thinking of how life SHOULD be (medical MJ use in a state which doesn't yet have medical MJ).
    .
    I really wanted to like this show. But it's hard with such obvious smug every week.

  • AS | August 6, 2012 12:59 PM

    I was actually surprised by how Republican this show is. After watching this, I'm having trouble believing that Sorkin is a Democrat. Look no further than the second part of Will's rant at the beginning of the 1st episode.

  • Kevin | August 6, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    Next time, try to mention how Newsroom is fighting a war against the stench of modern journalism...and doing so in a manner that *most* of our country can comprehend. No small task--unfortunately not everyone is as brilliant as you.

  • viewer | August 6, 2012 11:51 AMReply

    I think the Osama Obama sounding alike was a way to poke fun a the fact that during live coverage Fox News actually confused the two and announced that Obama bin laden had been shot.

  • sam | August 6, 2012 11:45 AMReply

    is this a sentence?

    Later on today, the first trailer for "Zero Dark Thirty," the film by "The Hurt Locker" helmer Kathryn Bigelow that focuses on the hunt for, and successful assassination of, Osama Bin Laden, and which stars Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Edgar Ramirez and Mark Duplass, among many others.

    ?

  • jimmiescoffee | August 6, 2012 11:37 AMReply

    i hate this show. its has reaffirmed my belief that sorkin is a complete hack after he somewhat changed my mind with 'social network.' this show is shit. its defines cringe, self-awareness, and pomp. the more i think about it the worse it gets.

  • AS | August 6, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    This show gets worse and worse with each passing week and just when you think its hit rock bottom, Sorkin finds a trap door and descends even lower. I don't know if I can make it through the rest of this season.

  • Wash | August 6, 2012 11:16 AMReply

    Semi-serious question: what's the process for choosing which shows to review? One would assume it's shows the Playlisters like (like "Girls" or "Veep" or "Breaking Bad"), but The Newsroom is regularly bashed each week, with even the positive reviews (like the last two weeks) pointing out that the previous episodes were poor. If you're not fans of The Newsroom, why review it and mostly bash it every week? Might as well start reviewing Real Housewives or something.

  • Wash | August 6, 2012 3:11 PM

    Fair enough, Oliver. The answer of "we wanted to review The Newsroom because we were looking forward to it" makes solid sense to me. And I certainly don't mind reading the reviews, regardless of whether I agree with them or not. Additionally, good catch on where Maggie's roomate is from; Pam's cousin on the office. It was bothering me that I couldn't quite place her.

  • Mr Anonymous | August 6, 2012 2:17 PM

    As an aside: how do you decide which shows to review? Just curious as to which shows qualify and which shows do not.

  • Oliver Lyttleton | August 6, 2012 12:14 PM

    We wanted to review The Newsroom because we were looking forward to it. Sorkin's had his misfires, but we're big fans on the whole (you certainly would struggle to find a bigger West Wing obsessive than myself). And I'm not sure we have bashed it every week -- I gave the last two episodes B+ grades. Maybe we'll reconsider for series two, if the slide continues, but the show has enough potential that I'll keep watching even after an episode like this one.

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